“I'll take my responsibilities seriously, as will the whole of the UCI”
The President of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Brian Cookson has written this personal piece following the tragic incident at Gent-Wevelgem this weekend.
In the hours and days following the tragic death of Antoine Demoitié, many people have contacted me directly or indirectly, or have commented on social media, to express their concern and to demand action. As President of the UCI, I take these comments seriously and feel that I have a duty to respond.
The first and most important thing to say must be to offer our deepest sympathy and condolences to Antoine’s family and team. We can hardly begin to imagine how they must feel at this moment. And we, all of us who love the sport of cycling, owe them two things.
Firstly, we must ensure that the incident itself is fully investigated – and of course the UCI will cooperate with the relevant authorities, whose job it now is to do that. Secondly, we must ensure that we all – the UCI and everyone involved in cycle road racing – learn lessons from this specific incident, as well as from other incidents that have caused injury to riders and others in recent months.
A really important aspect of this is not to jump to conclusions without knowing the full facts. I have to say that, from first reports, this incident does not appear to be as simple a case as many seem to think. Given that the matter will now be subject to the formal inquiries the authorities of France (where the incident occurred) and possibly Belgium too, consider necessary, I am restricted in what I can say, but I will try to address the issues.
As for the UCI, of course we take our responsibilities seriously, as do our National Federations, the race organisers, the teams, and everyone else. Current custom and practice in road race organisation and management goes back many decades, and has evolved considerably over that time. In parallel, environmental, social, technological and legal conditions have been evolving, and it's clear that a road race today faces many different challenges compared with just a couple of decades ago.
The UCI has been working over the past months with all stakeholders on revised protocols and regulations regarding all aspects of road racing, and particularly the conduct of race vehicles, as a matter of continual review. These include for instance detailed Commissaire briefings prior to UCI WorldTour events to identify potential risks, the development of enhanced specific operational guides for each vehicle’s role within the race caravan, with focus on driver behaviour when in close proximity of riders, the creation of new sanctions applicable to all drivers in the race caravan and not only to media drivers, or the application since January 1st of the Extreme Weather Protocol. And we are in active discussions with the relevant parties on proposals to reduce the size of the overall race peloton.
As I say, we take our responsibilities seriously and will not avoid them. But let's wait until we know the full facts of this tragic incident before we apportion blame to any individual or organisation.
Let's also remember the context in which road racing takes place. By definition, it is usually on a public road, closed temporarily for the purpose. It will therefore feature irregular twists and turns, changes in road width, in gradient and direction. It will encounter natural obstacles such as hills and descents, and man-made obstacles such as kerbs, signs, traffic islands, pedestrian refuges, traffic humps and so on.
To ensure safe passage for the riders and all others, including the spectators, over perhaps more than 200 kilometres, and at the same time to assure a sporting contest in which the best rider wins without cheating or unfair assistance is, to put it mildly, a massive undertaking. Then add on top of that the need to ensure that the event is properly covered by the media, so that the sponsors of the events and the teams can justify their investment, and I think you can see the layers of complexity that underlie this whole issue.
This complexity is, in many ways, also part of the attraction of road racing. The physical challenges from the race route, the environments through which it passes, the colourful spectacle, the race and its caravan winding its way through towns, villages and countryside – all these things are an essential part of the sport. In fact, when they are removed, for example when a race finish is moved from a town centre to the outskirts, the fans and media complain about the lack of these very features.
The key question therefore is, given the nature of our sport, how do we minimise the risks? There's a quotation that I have used before that I think is relevant here; “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple… and wrong”.
Complex problems require complex solutions. The fact is that road racing as we know it and love it could not take place without motorcycles, cars and other vehicles, often in close attendance. They are there to carry out a function, and that function relates directly to how and where they are in the race. So many people have commented on the recent tragedy, believing that the motorcycle in question was there to take television footage or photographs. It wasn't. Neither was it a case of an inexperienced motorcyclist. Nor a case of a motorcyclist overtaking riders in a reckless fashion. As I’ve said, I can’t say too much more, but the point I am making is, I hope, clear – if you want to find solutions, you have to correctly identify the problem.
So here is the issue. I'll take my responsibilities seriously, as will the whole of the UCI. And I'm asking everyone to do the same – yes, motorcycle pilots have to ensure they don't interfere with the racing, or cause danger to the riders or others. Race organisers have to ensure that their courses are as safe as possible, correctly marshalled, signed and with riders and spectators protected by appropriate barriers, etc., where necessary. Team car drivers have to ensure that they drive safely in the race, just as they would if driving their own families. Riders have to ensure that they take responsibility for their own, and each other's safety. And the public, the fans, they too have a responsibility to behave safely and correctly at races, and not cause danger to the riders. We can all think of many incidents that exemplify each of these aspects, I'm sure.
So, whether directly relevant to the specific incident or not, it’s clear that all of these issues have been brought into focus by this tragedy. Over the next few weeks, the UCI will continue the work it has been doing for several months on an ongoing basis, to address safety in road racing. I certainly anticipate that there will be changes in rules and in recommendations about the conduct of those involved. But at the end of the day, rules and recommendations can only go so far in regulating human behaviour. We all must remember that we have responsibility not just for our own safety but also for the safety of the people around us. Perhaps that way our sport will have a legacy that Antoine Demoitié deserves.